This past weekend I was thankful to be honored by my high school as the youngest inductee to date in the 2018 Choctawhatchee High School (CHS) Hall of Fame for my accomplishments post-high school and commitment to community service.
In preparing my acceptance remarks, I thought back to how I felt 22 years ago when I walked across the graduation stage. I don’t remember my exact thoughts, but I was planning to attend the University of Florida and major in engineering. I had taken dual enrollment classes at the local community college and received AP credit from some high school classes, so no doubt I felt prepared academically. As I look back now, I realize that Choctaw also gave me the confidence to succeed.
When I walked through the front doors of Choctawhatchee High School on Friday, it felt like home. As I strolled through the halls, a flood of memories returned. Choctaw High nurtured me and helped learn many of the lessons which serve me until this day.
When I started VLI to increase the number of Blacks in political leadership, so many people quizzically asked me how I could “just start” an organization. Today VLI has impacted over 400 people and 15 have been elected to office. In 2006 I recruited the board members, created the founding documents, raised money, engaged attendees and organized educational programs. I was able to hone my leadership skills at Choctaw. I served as captain of the cheerleading squad, and president of the NAACP Youth Council and the Minority Council. I was also in student government and several clubs. These experiences taught me how to run a meeting, work in teams and follow through on ideas and projects, all critical skills that any leader should possess.
Getting Along With Different Types of People
When I arrived at the University of Florida, it was not quite what I had expected. Growing up in the small military town of Fort Walton Beach, and being given the opportunity to travel and the exposure to different types of people, I expected to arrive on the campus of UF and maintain that same mentality and lifestyle. I distinctly remember attending the “white” sorority rush and feeling very uncomfortable. I did not know much about Black sororities, so I just assumed that I would join a “white” sorority. That first experience changed my future interactions and the trajectory of my work. I took advantage of the Step Up program for minorities in engineering and developed a circle of mainly minority friends who I would maintain throughout my time at UF. While not perfect, I truly believe that the Choctaw school leadership worked hard to ensure all students felt accepted and had an opportunity to succeed. The importance of working with different people cannot be overstated. To this day I seek out opportunities to work with people who are different than me and I believe that the atmosphere at CHS helped foster that attitude.
One of the most common compliments I receive today is about the confidence I have as a speaker. I have no doubt that my experience leading numerous pep rallies as cheerleading captain helped me become comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people. When I attended the pep rally on Friday, I remembered what a production the pep rallies were. Students are expected to step up on a number of projects and they are groomed from the moment they walk in the door their freshman year.
One of the other Hall of Fame inductees is now a high school teacher in North Carolina, and he commented on the differences in the school spirit at his school and our alma mater. He noted that there is something magical about CHS. Several people during the Hall of Fame festivities noted that it’s something we often take for granted while we are there, but when you talk to others about their high school experiences, you start to realize the distinctions. As I was sitting in the pep rally, I remembered the wave of pride and that I used to feel when I heard the first notes of the fight song. I experienced that same wave and excitement on Friday, 22 years later.
Whatever it is, I am forever grateful. When we sing in our alma mater that our “hearts will be forever loyal”, I believe that means that we should be committed to the values that we learned. That pride…magic…spirit…propels me to ensure that I do what I can do to pass on that “school spirit” that Choctawhatchee High School gave to me.